Facebook and Twitter on Friday said they had blocked multiple government-backed manipulation operations around the world, several of which favored US President Donald Trump, as part of a crackdown on state-sponsored propaganda efforts.
But Twitter also said that it had blocked some 88,000 accounts linked to Saudi state-backed “information operations”, in violation of its manipulation rules. From the large number of accounts blocked, apparently linked with the Saudi government, it looks as if the real target were not the sites supporting Trump but the Said regime. And there could be other reasons than cited by Facebook and Twitter.
Separately, Facebook said it had blocked a network in Vietnam and the United States which posted pro-Trump messages aimed at US citizens, along with another network targeting domestic audiences in the country of Georgia.
Both Facebook and Twitter have in the past acted against manipulation efforts from Russia, Iran and other countries
Background of Crackdown?
It comes as social media giants have been struggling in the face of state-backed disinformation efforts, often using automated accounts or “bots” to manipulate the platforms, amplifying their own messages while disparaging opponents.
Most of the accounts blocked by Twitter on Friday were in Arabic and aimed at “amplifying messages favorable to Saudi authorities,” but that some English language content was aimed at “Western audiences.”
“Our internal analysis shows the network was involved in various forms of platform manipulation, targeting discussions related to Saudi Arabia and advancing their geopolitical interests on the world stage,” the “Twitter Safety Team” said in a blog post.
Twitter said it released details on 5,929 accounts which it called a “representative sample” of the 88,000 suspicious accounts.
Saudi based Social Media Marketing Firm: Smaat?
Twitter’s investigations traced the source of the coordinated activity to the Saudi-based social media marketing firm Smaat, which has been permanently blocked from the platform.
Smaat was working for “high-profile individuals,” Twitter said, and several government departments in Saudi Arabia, using automated tools “to mask the overall platform manipulation originating from these accounts.”
Some of the tweets in question date back to 2016 and appear to be supportive of President Donald Trump or his campaign.
One dated November 11, 2016 showed a photo of billionaire George Soros — a frequent target of conservatives — and said Trump should put him “on the FBI most wanted list.”
Another from October 2016 showed a picture of former president Bill Clinton and said: “You don’t even need these polls, Donald Trump won. You can read it on Bill Clinton’s face.”
Crackdown by Facebook & Falun Gong
Facebook said the effort originating in Vietnam was traced to the multi-language media group Epoch Times, which is linked to the Falun Gong spiritual movement, and a US media outlet called BL, which has been posting pro-Trump messages.
Interestingly, Falun Gong is a spiritual movement that originated from mainland China in early part of 20th century but is viewed with suspicion by the Chinese authorities who consider it dangerous because of its size, and mysterious practices.
In the west, it is believed that is Falun Gong is being persecuted by Chinese authorities and it usually enjoys support and positive projection in western media. Facebook crack down hints that its media portals were being used from Vietnam which means probably against Chinese government – but it could be other way round as well.
Facebook, that is head quartered in California, on the west coast of the United States, added that it removed more than 600 accounts on Facebook and Instagram.
Instagram was launched in 2010 by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger as a small photo and video sharing site but it quickly became popular with millions of followers. It was acquired by Facebook in 2012 for around $1 billion in cash and stocks.
As of May 2019, Instagram users had exceeded 1 billon and so far more than 40 billion photos and videos have been uploaded on Instagram. Its now an effective advertising platform that is offered by Facebook marketing to businesses for promoting their products.
Facebook troubled by Fake Accounts
“The people behind this activity made widespread use of fake accounts — many of which had been automatically removed by our systems — to manage pages and groups, automate posting at very high frequencies and direct traffic to off-platform sites,” Facebook security chief Nathaniel Gleicher said.
“The BL-focused network repeatedly violated a number of our policies, including our policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior, spam and misrepresentation, to name just a few.”
The accounts posted memes and other content on conservative ideology and hot button US political issues including Trump’s impeachment, elections, trade, family values and freedom of religion, Gleicher said.
State actors from Non-Western countries being targeted?
Both Facebook and Twitter, according to their admissions, have in the past acted against manipulation efforts from Russia, Iran and other countries. Now a report, by an Internet Institute, (Oxford Internet Institute) points towards state linked entities in China, Russia, India, Iran, Pakistan and Venezuela.
After the 2016 elections, Russia has been repeatedly blamed in the US media and by leaders of the Democratic Party for using Facebook to subvert and influence the US presidential elections – when exploitation of Facebook by Cambridge Analytical became the buzz word.
Cambridge Analytica Ltd (CA) was a British political consulting firm which combined misappropriation of digital assets, data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication during the electoral processes. Apparently, Trump election campaign spent around $70 million on Cambridge Analytical to directly reaching out to targeted communities in the US through private communications and influenced their minds.
The company had to close its operations in 2018 in the course of the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal, although related firms still exist.
But a recent report by the Oxford Internet Institute found manipulation efforts have doubled over the past two years and are being used in 56 countries.
The researchers said “sophisticated state actors” from at least seven countries are working outside their borders on global foreign influence operations, using Facebook and Twitter.
Interestingly the report identified the countries as China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. All countries – except India – can be considered, broadly speaking, operating outside the US sphere of influence and this makes the crack down by US corporate giants like Facebook and Twitter meaningful.
In September 2019, TikTok, a Chinese video sharing site, was also identified as threat to the US national interests and news arrived that it was being investigated for its links with the Chinese government. It is owned, since 2017, by Byte Dance a large Beijing based internet company.
Earlier US accusations against Chinese telecom giant, Huawei, had developed into a kind of trade war. With this background in mind, the ongoing crack down by Facebook and Twitter may also assume a strategic battle between the West lead by the US and non-western countries like Pakistan, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia. Where India fits into all this remains to be seen.
GVS News Desk with input from Agencies.